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Season likely hinges on Thursday

12/8/2004

TORONTO -- Any hope of saving the NHL season hinges on
whether the next proposal by the players' association stirs serious
negotiating.

All the last offer yielded was three months of silence and
hundreds of canceled games.

When NHL officials and union leaders return to the bargaining
table Thursday, it will mark their first talks since Sept. 9.
That's when the players' association put forth a luxury tax-based
system that was rejected by the league because it didn't provide
the cost certainty the NHL seeks.

Commissioner Gary Bettman imposed a lockout a week later that
has already wiped out 382 games -- and forced the cancelation of the
All-Star game.

A two-day window is blocked out for talks, but if things don't
go well Thursday, there will be no need for another session Friday.

"I'm very hopeful," Detroit forward Brendan Shanahan said
Wednesday, following a rules summit that he convened. "This is the
third work stoppage in my career in the last 12 years."

With the season slipping away, the NHLPA invited the league back
to the table and promised to be armed with a new proposal in an
effort to keep the NHL from becoming the first major North American
league to lose a full season.

"We are looking forward to the meeting and are very confident
that our proposal will provide a basis to end the owners' lockout
and resume NHL hockey with a new CBA that can work for both owners
and players," Vancouver forward Trevor Linden, the NHLPA
president, said in a statement Wednesday.

Arenas have been given the go-ahead by the league to free up
dates previously reserved for hockey on a 45-day rolling basis,
which as of now means there won't be any NHL games before the
middle of January.

The league is committed to getting a deal that provides a link
between player costs and team revenues. The players' association
contends that the league will only be satisfied with a salary cap,
something the union says it won't ever accept.

But the league and the union have different definitions of what
constitutes a salary cap. So until there can be some basic
understanding, it seems, there will be an impasse.

"I think our positions are very clear and I don't think it
would be constructive to this process to either attempt to bargain
publicly or to engage in speculation as to what the offer may or
may not be," Bettman said.

The previous plan put forth by the NHLPA included a 5 percent
rollback on current contracts, a luxury tax framework that would
target the spending of specific teams, and a revenue-sharing
system.

Players also offered changes to the entry level system they say
will generate $60 million in savings to clubs. That proposal came
after a series of negotiating sessions in which the union rejected
six concepts put forth by the league and took a three-day sidestep
in talks to examine each of the 30 teams' finances.

Details of the new proposal have not been released, but that
might be because it was still being formulated this week.

It does not include a salary cap, a source told ESPN's Darren Pang.

"We're not big proponents of the luxury tax. But having said
that, we are looking for a proposal that's meant to move the
process along," said Bill Daly, the NHL's chief legal officer.

Phoenix Coyotes player representative Shane Doan told the
Vancouver Province newspaper that the offer might include more than
a rumored 10 percent rollback of salaries.

"This is a proposal that if they say no and won't flat-out
negotiate, we can sleep at night because we're giving a lot back
and doing everything we can to try and save the season," Doan
said.

If the players' association offers a luxury tax system that
forces teams that exceed the negotiated threshold to pay upward of
75 cents on each dollar, maybe the NHL will listen.

The previous offer included a proposal that said teams would pay
20 cents on the dollar for payrolls over $40 million.

Bettman said teams lost a total of more than $1.8 billion over
10 years and that management will not agree to a deal without a
defined relationship between revenue and salaries. Owners say teams
lost $273 million in 2002-03 and $224 million last season.

The league wants a system that makes sure player costs don't
exceed 53 percent of total revenues. At that level, the NHL
contends that the average salary would drop from $1.8 million to
$1.3 million.

An economic study commissioned by the NHL found that players get
75 percent of league revenues. The players' association has
challenged many of the NHL's financial findings.

The league has been operating under the same collective
bargaining agreement since 1995, when the last lockout went 103
days before a 48-game season was played. That deal was extended
twice.

"I'm an optimistic guy," Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin said.
"If they're meeting, it's good."